Before our last Italian trip, I was fortunate enough to be invited to explore the wine growing region around the Mount Etna side of Sicily. Despite being a huge fan of director Giuseppe Tornatore (of Cinema Paradiso fame) and having watched various Godfather films, I still had little idea of what to expect. I suppose I pictured a stark, craggy and arid landscape that struggled for survival. Perhaps other areas of Sicily during drought stricken summer months capture this desert-like, foreboding character, but it could not be further from what I experienced at Mount Etna in spring.
Lush and plentiful, what I saw before me can only be described as the Garden of Eden. Vibrant blossoming mimosa trees with lemon, orange and olive trees dotted the mountainous landscape adding splashes of colour as if the countryside was one large Impressionist painting. I had never witnessed a collection of so many fruit and nut trees randomly placed. To the left avocadoes, almonds and plums, while to the right lay hazelnuts, mulberries, pears, quince and pistachio – almost all in bloom. Even an occasional broccoli and artichoke plant made an unexpected appearance. It was natural chaos at its best.
Despite my ignorance, Sicily has been celebrated since classical antiquity for its produce. Grape vines have also been an integral part of its garden having been planted since the 5th century BC, if not before. Today, their wines make up a surprising 10% of Italy’s annual production.
There are several known grape growing regions on the island including the western region which incorporates some lower lying valleys. What makes the Mount Etna vineyards different to the western parts is its altitude (650-1000 metres above sea level) inviting cooler air in and around the vines and its direct access to the mineral-rich and well draining volcanic soils (some are literally comprised of chunks of volcanic rock like the stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape). Another significant difference is its grape variety. Unlike the bold, deeply coloured and Syrah-like Nero d’Avola, this region is mostly planted with Nerello Mascalese, an indigenous variety that is similar to Pinot Noir. Its wines tend to be juicy and ripe (unlike Burgundy in challenging vintages) yet are refined, focused and mineral – like those from the Côte d’Or. Wonderfully feminine. These characteristics have dubbed this region “Burgundy of the Mediterranean” amongst the wine cognoscenti.
They are truly wines worth exploring and with any luck, may available from Goedhuis & Co. in the near future! And for Sicily itself, well I cannot recommend it highly enough. For more information about this glorious region, click here http://www.bestofsicily.com/etna.htm.